Reynolds v. United States (1878)

U.S. Supreme Court
1878

Reynolds v. United States was the first Supreme Court case to reference Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptists. The phrase then became a major reference point for the First Amendment.

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This article dissects some of Jefferson's original and deleted wording in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. According to Hutson, "the Danbury Baptist letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political...

This piece examines the background behind the "Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty," a precursor to the First Amendment's religious elements. According to Hayward, the early days of the founding were plagued with arguments over whether or not America would...

"Religious liberty is a treasured American value. But over the past several months, it has become a lightning rod for debate. To hear the dire warnings of conservatives, you would think that religious liberty in this country is hanging by a thread."

In this piece, atheist Christopher Hitchens declares that America was not founded on religious principles as many have supposed, but rather was founded on the basis of Enlightenment principles. Mr. Hitchens rails against the suggestion of religion being the root of liberty, and as such, deeply encourages a strong separation of church and state.

The ACLU gives a background on Newt Gingrich's proposed Constitutional amendment allowing voluntary school prayer. The ACLU argues that the proposed amendment would actually lead to less religious freedom and could lead to the possibility of indoctrination of children by school officials.

"The Obama administration's decision requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control was bound to cause an uproar among Roman Catholics and members of other faiths, no matter their beliefs on contraception."

"The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law 'respecting an establishment of religion.' This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-...

"The first of the First Amendment's two religion clauses reads: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion … .' Note that the clause is absolute. It allows no law. It is also noteworthy that the clause forbids more than the establishment of religion by the government. It forbids even laws respecting an establishment of religion. The establishment clause sets up a line...

"In recent years the Supreme Court has placed the Establishment and the Free Exercise of Religion Clauses in mutual tension, but it was not so for the Framers. None of the Framers believed that a governmental connection to religion was an evil in itself. Rather, many (though not all) opposed an established church because they believed that it was a threat to the free exercise of religion....

"People of many faiths—as well as those of no faith—are likely to be present at a public-school graduation ceremony. School officials should not be in the business of picking one brand of religion to represent the school and rejecting others. That is exactly what the First Amendment was seeking to avoid in spelling out the separation of church and state."

"Freedom of religion is at the heart of the American understanding of liberty. Under our constitutional order, the free exercise of religion is not a mere matter of toleration but an inalienable natural right. As George Washington explained in his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: 'All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that...

"The Free Exercise Clause reserves the right of American citizens to accept any religious belief and engage in religious rituals. ... The clause protects not just religious beliefs but actions made on behalf of those beliefs."

"The free-exercise clause pertains to the right to freely exercise one's religion. It states that the government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Although the text is absolute, the courts place some limits on the exercise of religion."

According to Matt Spalding, "[o]f the many influences that shaped the American concept of liberty, the first and most formative was faith. More than anything else, religion formed the backbone of colonial culture and defined its moral horizon." This article briefly examines some of the...

This article explores James Madison's intense encouragement and furtherance of American religious liberty. According to Laconte, Madison is chiefly responsible for the First Amendment's "free exercise" language, for he insisted that...

"Catholic institutions filed a series of lawsuits yesterday seeking to vindicate their rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. At issue is the regulation mandating that all employer-provided insurance policies cover birth control, including sterilization procedures and abortifacient drugs, in violation of church teachings."

In this article, Brooke Allen rails against the idea that America is based on "Christian principles." She instead suggests that America was founded on "Enlightenment principles," and then proceeds to give a variety of quotations from several founding...

Comparing the religious totalitarianism of Islam to the influence of religion in American life, Peter Schwartz argues that "[p]olitically, if religious faith dominates, freedom will not be permitted." Schwartz believes that America's "separation of church and state...

"Waldman’s conclusion is that 'the Founding Faith ... was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty — a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.' There is a certain amount of modern sales pitch in Waldman’s revolutionary formula: Religious right! Nouvelle atheists! A pox on both their houses! But he adduces a...

"The right to freedom of religion is so central to American democracy that it was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution along with other fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In order to guarantee an atmosphere of absolute religious liberty, this country's founders also mandated the strict separation of church and state. Largely because of this...

"In a national survey of registered U.S. voters commissioned by EPPC's American Religious Freedom Program in early November 2011, respondents provided their opinions on various topics related to domestic First Amendment rights. Below are top-line findings from the survey."

This article reports on the removal of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore over his infamous stance on the display of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom. Although many people believed that Chief Justice Moore was constitutionally allowed to post the Ten...

"The ACLU has supported the right of people to preach their religion in public places and to go door-to-door to spread their religious messages. The Constitution properly protects the right of religious figures to preach their messages over the public airwaves. Religious books, magazines, and newspapers are freely published and delivered through the U.S. Postal System. No other industrialized...

In this article, Matthew Spalding argues that our current view of "separation of church and state" is at odds with the thought processes of the founding fathers. According to Spalding, the founders knew that a moral citizenry was...

"Opposition to state-sponsored posting of the Ten Commandments does not arise out of hostility to the timeless values conveyed in Exodus 20:1-17. Rather, it arises out of a profound respect for the diversity of religions in America today—those that embrace Biblical law and those that derive their ethics and values from other texts. By adhering to the principle and spirit of separation of...

"Most Americans have been conditioned to believe and to assume that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires a 'wall of separation between Church and State.' This concept is seldom challenged today . . . but it is not actually a part of the Constitution or any of the Amendments; it did not exist until well into the twentieth century."

This piece describes James Madison's key, but often forgotten, role in establishing religious liberty in America. Although Thomas Jefferson is often thought of as the main proponent of separation between church and state, "[i]t really was Madison who shaped the...

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"Equal numbers (23%) of Americans say that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are the two First Amendment rights most likely to be threatened."

Analysis Report White Paper

"This Article is an attempt to describe the actual laws and debates over establishment and disestablishment in the United States, in the hope that a more thorough understanding of the issue faced by early Americans will help to foster a richer, and perhaps less brittle and bipolar, understanding of the issues we face today."

"The history of the Free Exercise of Religion Clause, in both its original understanding and modern interpretations, reveals two recurring impulses, one giving free exercise a broad scope, the other a narrow scope."

In this article Case confirms that America was not founded as a Christian country but one where all religions could find equality and protection of their rights.

The dispute defined for the first time two fault lines that have run through American history ever since. The first, of course, is over the proper relation between government and what man has made of God—the church. The second is over the relation between a free individual and government authority—the shape of liberty."

From the Colonial era to the present, religions and religious beliefs have played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religion has been at the heart of some of the best and some of the worst movements in American history.

Originally delivered as a speech in the mid-1980s, Leonard Peikoff proposes the idea that the "Religious Right" was leading the country away from freedom and toward a socialistic, welfare state. A self-professed atheist, Peikoff asserts that religion has historically inhibited reason and the progress of the individual.

According to Carl Becker, the Revolutionary War was not simply fought over the injustice of political taxation without representation; rather, it was also fought over the rights to individual religious liberty.

This piece traces the development of religious liberty throughout the course of American history. According to Witte, before America's founding, religious groups were restricted to specific communities and those who disagreed with the established religion were persecuted.

Composed around the idea of Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" statement, this piece seeks to demonstrate how the phrase is a sorry foundation for so many American legal decisions. Dreisbach explores the background behind Jefferson's statement, including Jefferson's own church/state actions which suggest a different interpretation than the one commonly used today.

"The First Amendment Center has supported an annual national survey of American attitudes about the First Amendment since 1997.... This report summarizes the findings from the 2012 survey, and where appropriate, depicts how attitudes have changed over time."

"This updated edition of the Survey of Religious Hostility in America is a testament to the radical shift in our culture's worldview that started with the rise of secularism following World War II and has accelerated with each passing year of the twenty-first century."

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey includes reliable estimates of the size of religious groups in the United States as well as detailed information on their demographic characteristics, religious beliefs and practices, and basic social and political values.

Video/Podcast/Media

"No phrase in American letters has had a more profound influence on church-state law, policy, and discourse than Thomas Jefferson's 'wall of separation between church and state,' and few metaphors have provoked more passionate debate. The 'wall,' in our time, has become the locus classicus of the notion that the First Amendment separated religion and the civil state, thereby mandating a...

Produced to celebrate the Christmas of 2010, this video presents the relationship between religion and liberty in America. Whittle provides a variety of quotes from the Founding Fathers to solidify his claims, and then shows how these liberties effectively encourage good behavior in our nation.

"The new 18 minute documentary program, written and presented by Danish Human Rights Lawyer, Jacob Mchangama, focuses on one of the defining issues of our time; the global battle of values over the relationship between free speech and religious sensitivities. Recent years have seen increasing demands that free speech should be limited to respect religious feelings. In a globalized world this...

This clip finds atheist Christopher Hitchens debating Ken Blackwell over whether or not America is a Christian nation. Blackwell maintains that America was founded distinctly on Judeo-Christian principles, while Hitchens declares that America's founding was secular and based on the beliefs of Deist founders. According to Hitchens, the fact that America's enemies...

"Continuing with the topic 'Religious Liberty and the Faith of the Founders,' Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, has a conversation with actors portraying George Mason and Thomas Jefferson on the subject of universal rights and the free exercise of religion."

"Why did the states want to ensure the Federal government did not establish a national religion? And why were the freedoms of press, speech and assembly so important to the Founding Fathers?"

Primary Document

Written aboard the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop's most famous sermon cites the Book of Matthew and man's logical nature as the source of a civilization that is new, unique, and divine. Preparing his Puritan followers for the society they must forge amidst difficult odds, Winthrop spoke of "A City upon a Hill" in their New England community.

"Roger Williams (ca. 1603-83), religious leader and one of the founders of Rhode Island, was the son of a well-to-do London businessman. Educated at Cambridge (A.B., 1627) he became a clergyman and in 1630 sailed for Massachusetts. He refused a call to the church of Boston because it had not formally broken with the Church of England, but after two invitations he became the assistant pastor,...

In this document, James Madison strongly upholds the cause of American religious liberty while soundly denouncing any "encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies." Among other things, Madison cautions against the establishment of government chaplains...

A precursor to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, this act, according to the Library of Virginia "concluded a ten-year campaign...

"It is supposed by multitudes, that in submitting to government we give up some part of our liberty, because they imagine that there is something in their nature incompatible with each other. But the word of truth plainly shews, that man first lost his freedom by breaking over the rules of government; and that those who now speak great swelling words about liberty, while they despise...

"In the First Amendment, our Bill of Rights recognizes the twin pillars of religious liberty: the constitutional protection for the free exercise of religion, and the constitutional prohibition on the establishment of religion by the state. Our Nation's founders knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. Our founders also recognized the...

Transcript of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

"Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing. Not that this desire always prevails; often times it is overcome and they turn towards evil. But some power is constantly calling them back. Ever there comes a resistance to wrongdoing. When bad conditions begun to accumulate, when the forces of darkness become prevalent, always they are ultimately doomed to fail, as the...

Tocqueville's famous analysis of the American economic and political system, as he observed during his travels of the country in the 1830s.

According to Oyez, this case was brought to the Supreme Court by Michael Newdow, who insisted that his daughter's constitutional rights were violated by having to listen "to the words 'under...

"Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment of any law 'respecting an establishment of religion,' which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day -- even if...

This decision upheld a New Jersey program that established the precedent that a state may provide, with public money, bus transportation services to and from school to students in parochial schools.

Although the question of whether or not to open the First Continental Congress with prayer was a bit of a contentious point at first, the Congressional members finally agreed to invite Reverend Jacob Duché from Christ Church of Philadelphia to lead them in prayer. His...

"And so there came about that tacit understanding that to the Constitution would be added a Bill of Rights. Well and truly did the first Congress of the United States fulfill that first unwritten pledge; and the personal guarantees thus given to our individual citizens have established, we trust for all time, what has become as ingrained in our American natures as the free elective choice of...

"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants–while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Other than the First Amendment's establishment clause, Jefferson's Danbury Baptist letter is undoubtedly one of the most influential writings on American religious liberty. Containing the famous "wall of separation" phrase, Jefferson's words in this private letter have been...

In this case, "the court found that the parochial school system was 'an integral part of the religious mission of the Catholic Church,' and held that the Act fostered excessive entanglement' between government and religion, thus violating the Establishment Clause."

The Court's decision in response to this, established the "Lemon...

This famous letter was written by John Adams to his wife Abigail while Adams was participating in the First Continental Congress. It records the initial controversy over whether or not to open the Congressional session in prayer, and then the piety and...

"I am not a theologian. I am not a philosopher. I am just a public servant that is doing the very best I know how. But in more than 3 decades of public life, I have seen first-hand how basic spiritual beliefs and deeds can shatter barriers of politics and bigotry."

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature put forth a bill that would set aside tax money for Christian institutions. Although Madison is believed to have been a Christian...

In many cases, the founding fathers and their constituents mixed religion with matters of state and government much more freely than Americans in the present day do. This is evidenced in their many writings, one of which is Washington’s thanksgiving proclamation....

Reynolds v. United States was the first Supreme Court case to reference Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptists. The phrase then became a major reference point for the First Amendment.

"I congratulate you on the continued and increasing prosperity of our country. By the favor of Divine Providence we have been blessed during the past year with health, with abundant harvests, with profitable employment for all our people, and with contentment at home, and with peace and friendship with other nations."

"Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law 'respecting an establishment of religion,' which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day --...

Often considered to be one of the founders most opposed to religion, Thomas Paine declared that this book described his "opinions upon Religion." As the title suggests, Paine greatly relied on the use of reason when determining his religious beliefs. In the...

"Witherspoon's The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men caused a great stir when it was first preached in Princeton and published in Philadelphia in 1776, about a month before he was elected to the Continental Congress on June 22. He reminds his auditors that the sermon is his first address on political matters from the pulpit: ministers of the Gospel have more important...

"Signed 'Philalethes,' The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants (1744) is Williams's most famous work. It was occasioned by a 1742 Connecticut statute prompted by Standing Order clergymen's resentment of Great Awakening revivalists. It prohibited ministers from preaching outside their own parishes, unless expressly invited to do so by resident ministers. Punishment for...

"THE great Case of Liberty of Conscience so often Debated and Defended (however dissatisfactorily to such as have so little Conscience as to Persecute for it) is once more brought to publick View, by a late Act against Dissenters, and Bill, or an additional one, that we all hop'd the Wisdom of our Rulers had long since laid aside, as what was fitter to be passed into an Act...

The Constitution of the United States established the federal governmental system currently in place with three branches of government. The premise of executive privilege developed from the separation of powers clause.

"In the transaction of your foreign affairs, we have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations, and especially of those with which we have the most important relations. We have done them justice on all occasions, favored where favor was lawful, and cherished mutual interests and intercourse on fair and equal terms. We are firmly convinced, and we act on...

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted in 1776, heralds the inherent rights of man--rights the protection of which provides citizens the motivation to rebel against an unjust government.

George WashingtonPreparing to leave office, Washington wrote his now famous "Farewell Address" to placate American concerns that a country without his leadership could not survive. Washington stresses the importance of unity, the supremacy of the Constitution, the danger of...

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